Explained: VPN vs Proxy; What's the Difference?

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Infopackets Reader Bill K. writes:

" Dear Dennis,

Thanks for your excellent and concise explanations regarding VPNs (virtual private networks). I read with interest the latest article, 'Difference Between VPN Server and VPN (Service)' and also 'Do I need a VPN? Are VPNs Safe for Online Banking?'. I was wondering if you could explain the difference between a VPN vs Proxy? Which one is better? Can I use a Proxy with bit torrent or browsing the web anonymously? "

My response:

In this case, the term "proxy" refers to a "proxy server", which is a special use server online the Internet that is designed to relay data between you and a third party (usually a website). In doing so, your IP address remains hidden to the destination website because any requests you make are relayed through the proxy instead of a direct connection to the site.

Graphically, you can look at it this way:

Normally when you access a site, the request goes from your computer (A) to the destination website (B), depicted as A -> B. If you used a proxy (C), the data is relayed, depicted as A -> C -> B instead of A -> B.

Explained: VPN vs Proxy; What's the Difference?

A VPN service works almost identical to a proxy server, except that the connection between you and the VPN server is guaranteed encrypted.

On the other hand, a proxy server connection is not always encrypted because it depends on whether the proxy allows for a specially configured HTTPS (secure web browsing), and whether or not the web site you're accessing uses HTTP (not secure) or an HTTPS (secure) connection, which encrypts data.

Data encryption means that any activity you do online cannot be intercepted by third parties, though using HTTPS by itself (without a proxy server or VPN service) would not hide your IP address - it just means that data you're transferring can't be intercepted and picked apart by a third party.

Let's look at some pros and cons of using a VPN vs a proxy.

Pros: Proxy vs VPN

  • most proxy servers are free
     
  • free proxy servers can be used for general purposes such as getting around geo-restricted sites (such as some news websites)

Cons: Proxy vs VPN

  • proxy servers are not guaranteed to be encrypted, which means your IP can be traced
     
  • logs of activities on a proxy server may be recorded
     
  • you don't know who is running the proxy server - it could be a cyber criminal or government entity and they may be recording your activity
     
  • proxy servers are limited in scope; some proxies only work on HTTP or HTTPS (web browsing) but not other services such as bittorrent
     
  • proxy servers are often overused by the public and very slow, which makes them undesirable or unusable
     
  • setting up a proxy server is usually complicated because each application (web browser) must be configured to use a proxy
     
  • many websites and services will block proxy servers due to abuse (caused by 'bad people' using proxy servers for nefarious reasons)

Pros: VPN vs Proxy

  • a VPN works seamlessly and can be used in any web application or service, whether browsing the web anonymously using a web browser, or using bittorrent to download files
     
  • data between you an the VPN server is always encrypted which means your IP address remains anonymous 100% of the time
     
  • a VPN service is usually very fast when relaying data between you and the third party because most reliable VPN services are paid-for, which means that the infrastructure is maintained to work at an acceptable level (otherwise, users would not pay for the service)
     
  • installing a VPN service is usually simple; you install the VPN setup program, which then connects you to the VPN server; you don't need to configure your web browser or bittorrent client to use the VPN service (usually)

Cons: VPN vs Proxy

  • reliable VPN services costs money; anywhere from $35 a year to $10 or more per month depending on which service you use
     
  • some VPN services are blacklisted and may not work to get around geo-restricted websites, such as Netflix

I hope that helps.

To answer your questions - specifically, "Which one is better, a VPN or a Proxy?" and "Can I use a Proxy with bit torrent or browsing the web anonymously?" - here is my answer:

A VPN is light years better than a proxy, but as I've pointed out, a reliable VPN service costs money. That said, you can use a proxy server for general purpose web browsing, but there are limitations to take into account, which I've outlined in my Pros and Cons list above. I certainly would not use a proxy server for bittorrent if you intend to download copyrighted material. In this case a VPN is a much better choice, though I am by no means advocating piracy.

Got a Computer Question or Problem? Ask Dennis!

I need more computer questions. If you have a computer question - or even a computer problem that needs fixing - please email me with your question so that I can write more articles like this one. I can't promise I'll respond to all the messages I receive (depending on the volume), but I'll do my best.

About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of Infopackets.com. With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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